Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Gift: An Open Letter to Michael Heisley About John Calipari's Departure.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2009 at 4:26 PM

Dear Michael Heisley:

I don’t know if you know it, but you're having a good day. Your basketball franchise hasn't had much in the way of good fortune over the years — wayward draft-lottery results, career-ending injuries to players on long-term contracts, Stu Jackson. But today you received a rare gift when John Calipari left his coaching post at the University of Memphis.

You shouldn't gloat about this of course. That would be poor public relations in this college-sports-crazed town, and you've done enough damage to you and your team's image already. Besides, as someone who has always found Calipari insufferable, I'm happy to celebrate for you. But make no mistake: This is an opportunity.

If the University of Memphis makes a smart coaching hire (paging Missouri's Mike Anderson), then their basketball program can still be very successful. But it's wildly unlikely that the next coach will be able to maintain the consistently lofty status Calipari has achieved at the University of Memphis over the past few years — at least not without incurring the scandal Calipari was slick enough to avoid. And, with "Coach Cal" all but napalming the Tiger program on his character-revealing way out the door, it will take even a good new coach a little time to get things back on track.

With the Tigers likely derailed for a couple of years, this presents a much-needed chance for the Grizzlies franchise to reassert its prominence among local basketball fans.

Memphis may be the only city in America in which a major-league team and a minor-league team in the same sport co-exist and there's more civic interest in the minor-league team. Part of this is due to the strong, long-held affection many locals have for the University of Memphis basketball program; multiple generations of fans have grown up treating Tiger basketball like the professional franchise it's not supposed to be.

But even more than ingrained fandom, the recent disparity in interest between the Tigers and Grizzlies has been a direct response to the relative on-court success and failure of the two teams. With a talented head coach deft at gaming an already inherently non-competitive system, the Tigers have lost fewer games over the past three seasons (10) than your floundering Grizzlies have this March (11). Yet, just a few years ago, when the Grizzlies were going to the playoffs and the Tigers were an NIT-bound underachiever, it was the major-league team in town that was drawing the bigger crowds.


The attendance and fan-interest battle can swing your way again, Mr. Heisley, and it can start to happen next season. But you must seize this opportunity with a dramatic offseason that is followed by a significant improvement on the 20-something-win malaise your franchise has been mired in for three seasons now.

Getting the University of Oklahoma's Blake Griffin would be a good start, but the Grizzlies have no control over that. It's up to the draft lottery gods, who haven't exactly smiled on your team in the past. And getting some kind of marquee free agent this summer would be good too, but that's more difficult than a lot of fans realize. Neither of these things is a matter of merely wanting to act.

There are, however, some areas where you can control you own destiny: You can start with the coaching situation. Marc Iavaroni, while a tremendously smart and decent guy, was a disaster in his first head-coaching stint. You listened to Jerry West in hiring the former Phoenix assistant, and you got burned. Forced to make a change with a year and a half left on Iavaroni's contract, but not wanting to pay two full-fledged head coaches in the middle stages of the team's so-called "three-year plan," you replaced Iavaroni with returning company man Lionel Hollins. It was a deflating, uninspired choice made out of personal comfort and financial reticence.

Hollins is essentially a glorified interim coach. After a couple of smart initial changes — turning Mike Conley loose and upping the team's pace of play — he hasn't distinguished himself, and what's left of the fan base has no reason to believe in him going forward. Hollins' interim period should end this summer.

Bump Hollins up to a front-office position of some sort where his solid community ties can be helpful and go out and hire a coach that you believe in and that fans can get excited about. (One idea among many potential targets: Bill Laimbeer, the former Pistons all-star whose three titles in the WNBA suggests translatable head-coaching experience and whose commanding personality and winning pedigree should get the attention of players and fans alike.)

A coach in place, you simply must finally give general manager Chris Wallace the full green light to use all of the team's assets this summer — three picks in this June's rookie draft, copious cap room, and plenty of attractive and potentially expendable young players — to do whatever he possibly can to make the team significantly better next season without sacrificing the long-term goals. No more talk of three-year plans. That phrase should be stricken from the team's vocabulary. No more leaving all your free-agent money on the table. After compiling what is certain to be the worst combined record in the NBA over the past three seasons, this team needs to make a big leap NOW.

Whatever form the offseason takes — and I'll get into plenty of specifics once we know exactly where the team's lottery pick falls — the rough outline should be obvious: Adding a major young piece to a core that starts with O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol and may or may not include Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and/or Darrell Arthur is a first priority, one hopefully the draft lottery can make easy to fulfill. Next comes spiking the team with multiple experienced players who can play big minutes and make a real impact. The likes of Marko Jaric, Greg Buckner, and Quentin Ross should be gone or buried at the end of the bench next season. This year's Grizzlies' squad may struggle to top 20 wins for the third straight season. Next year's version should be committed to winning 40, with better years to follow.

Despite this season's struggles, your team had a good and active offseason last summer: Trading for Mayo and signing the younger Gasol. One way or another, this summer's haul needs to be even more dramatic. John Calipari has given you a golden opportunity: He isn't just leaving the Tiger program, he's leaving at the very moment fans of that program were most excited about the future — with top prospects Xavier Henry, DeMarcus Cousins, and John Wall all potentially on deck. And he's wrecking that short-term future by not only taking all those potential stars with him, but raiding the current roster of its most usable parts. This whole saga has been one long (too long) learning moment for a lot of Tiger fans unaware of how shady their sport has become. Maybe they're ready to give the legitimate pro product in town another chance.

Tiger basketball will be a mess next season; the Grizzlies don't have to be. This is a gift, Mr. Heisley. But it's also a test. Don't blow it.



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